Pound Sterling: Donald Sterling & The Cheap Currency of Media Outrage

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Hollywood. Let's all stay on script.

The reactions to LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling's TMZ released audio recordings have been vocal and outraged.

Kelly Dwyer of Yahoo Sports.

SB Nation's Tom Ziller.

Those were the calm ones.  They're understandable instant reactions, but I've yet to see many in the media advance the story beyond the obvious and unanimous.  One Los Angeles columnist tried, suggesting that Sterling might feel more comfortable owning a hockey team, missing the point impressively and proving she's incapable of scoring against an empty net.  Sterling pulled his goalie on a power play and she managed to drill the puck into her own forehead.

The Background

Sterling's former mistress - a half-black, half-Mexican woman more than forty years his junior recorded conversations with Sterling in which she baited the 81 year old owner into expressing neanderthal racial views, mostly centered around his insecurity for her "broadcasting" associations with black men.  Reading Yahoo's Dwyer (who is usually fun and entertaining) paint her as a victim of misogyny was chuckle-worthy, but it keeps the narrative uncomplicated, the flows of outrage within the boundaries of the accepted banks.

Sterling operates a franchise in a black-dominated league and this creates, as the marketing types who make quote signs in the air with their fingers are wont to say, "bad optics."  The league's 30 owners are mostly white, their 400 elite employees are mostly black, but everyone's mistresses span the color palette like a Benetton ad and they're all united by green.

Maybe we shouldn't be surprised by Sterling's comments.  Sex and jealousy have long been vehicles for dredging up unexamined racist feelings that men spew in a fit of impotent anger...

Much like driving in LA.

If a bile-spewing NBA billionaire chiding his bi-racial mistress for being seen with other minorities isn't strange enough, Sterling's unlikely defender - his current wife - contends that he was entrapped by a gold-digging opportunist with multiple aliases and a history of seducing rich men; a woman who had vowed "to get even with him" in part because of an on-going lawsuit filed against her by Sterling's wife for Donald frittering away 1.8 million dollars in community assets on said mistress.

Reassuringly, the audio's validity has been thoroughly investigated by the crack journalists at TMZ and apparently everyone is satisfied that it's as reliable as a Lohan up-skirt video.

The truth is that Sterling has a lengthy history of reptilian behavior and no one is particularly interested in giving him the benefit of the doubt.  He's Loathsome Rich Guy straight from central casting.  A propensity for wearing silk shirts unbuttoned to his navel while festooned in gold chains, a generally horrific history of ownership and a long record of these sorts of incidents does not help his Q score.

In short, Donald Sterling is a creep.  We get that.  Writing that article isn't terribly hard.

But boy, it's everywhere.

We can do better.

The Divine Right of Kings

Do racist creeps have the right to own a basketball team?

They do.  But it's in the best interests of the league that they do not.  Or to do it much more discreetly.

The query freezes other NBA owners in their tracks. While they may not like Sterling, will curse him for his stupidity and will roundly condemn him for jeopardizing labor relations, they're also not very interested in their peers impinging upon their privileges when they act badly.

Former NBA commissioner David Stern, for all of his condescending bluster, was terrified of Sterling's litigating prowess and never had the courage to tackle him.

Donald's previous offenses never created a coalition of outrage sufficient for action.  Adam Silver has a clear coalition for action and the lifetime ban was a necessary use of that power.  The NBA leadership didn't suddenly grow deep principles.  This is self-preservation.

Will the owners vote a 3/4 supermajority to force a sale?

Generally, kings don't support revolutions against other kings. Even bad ones.  Keep up the charade of divine rule for all or it may be your head on the guillotine one day.  Precedent is a dangerous thing.  Instead, they'll lock him in a dark tower in an iron mask.  Banishment should suffice.

Cry Me A Rivers

While Sterling's deep dive into his primal brain reveals ignorance, who are his victims? His victims in various housing discrimination lawsuits are clear enough.  Who are they here?

Who did Sterling harm?

I mean beyond the general societal sense of rhetorical pollution poured into the commons.  Or himself.

According to most of the media, the specific harm is to his players, his coach and NBA players in general.

Let's be clear about one thing: Sterling's reputation is well known and assiduously documented.  For every public story - and there are plenty - there are a dozen more in the NBA grapevine.  The latest orgy of outrage is a day late and a pound sterling short.

Sterling has had a long record of hiring black executives (Elgin Baylor had a two decade run as his GM) and coaches (Paul Silas, Dennis Johnson, Alvin Gentry, Don Chaney, Doc Rivers) and his player composition was never classic Bostonian.  Whether in basketball or mistresses, clearly Sterling can compartmentalize.  He was also cheap, small-minded and terrible.  When the cheap part changed and the Lakers tanked, suddenly working for Donald Sterling didn't seem so bad after all.

This clearly informed the talent market.

A respected black head coach, Doc Rivers, chose the Clippers because they had great players, he had no interest in a Celtics rebuild and SoCal is a fun place to be wealthy.  We're to believe that this was the first time a 30 year NBA (playing & coaching) veteran had heard of Donald Sterling's issues?  He didn't ask around before taking the gig?

Are we really going to play that game?  If we are, the necessary partnering assumption is that Doc Rivers has an IQ close to his old jersey number.  Nope.

What about the Clipper players?

In 2012, Blake Griffin chose to extend with the Clips for five years and ninety five million dollars.  Chris Paul chose to come there and play Pied Piper for other free agents.  He just extended in 2013 for five years and one hundred and seven million dollars.  These are two smart, aware guys who understand their brand.  They didn't know about Sterling? They've never seen a newspaper?  There's no institutional knowledge in the NBA?

This is not a plantation.  This is a market.  With intelligent, informed labor performing their own calculus of risk and reward and choosing the best organizational expression for their amazing talents.  Spare us the junior college sociology exploitation diatribe.  It fails on every conceivable level.

Everyone in the Clippers organization knows the deal with Donald Sterling.  So does everyone in the NBA.  No one is shocked right now, whatever their pantomime for the press.  They may be pissed.  They may be disappointed.  If they're hurt, it's because the cold exchanges of the market have been laid bare before a finger-wagging press and they're now expected to do something besides work hard and cash checks.  You'll see something symbolic tonight meant to heal us all.  I'm sure some will find it poignant.

The affirmative choice by black coaches and players to work for the Clippers with free agency - in every sense of that phrase - describes the real complexities of this league and human interactions.  These are grown men who clearly believed Sterling is a distant buffoon with minimal impact on their day-to-day lives.  The owner's actions broke his part of their implicit agreement - he was supposed to keep his ignorance manageable.  Before the latest incident, they found his behaviors relatively inconsequential compared to the money, the promotional opportunities and social connections of playing in LA as part of a legit title contender.

There are Apple employees who performed a similar calculus the first time Steve Jobs bounced a crumpled piece of paper off of their heads and called them idiots.

The Clippers players and coaches were never there to vouch for Donald Sterling's character.  Nor are they his victims.  They don't need protection or pity.  They're smart professionals who went to work for an awful boss and underestimated his ability for public suicide.  The eventual upshot is a better organization once the trash gets taken out.

Spare us the violin music.

The Opportunity

Fortunately, there's an opportunity here.  Sterling's lifetime ban effectively denies him enjoying the privileges of ownership to such an extent that his only way out is a sale - quite possibly to Magic Johnson's ownership group - a fitting coup de grace and a nice lesson about what real empowerment looks like.  Sterling has little leverage and Magic can now put the negotiating screws to him.  Johnson is already banging Twitter so that the owners will force Sterling out within a specific time frame, robbing Donald of even a shred of leverage and the chance for competing bidders to ready their best pitch.  Magic still sees the court better than everyone else and he knows how to break down a defense.

Justice is best served cosmic.

Tolerance Lessons By After-School Special

The same theater and concern for optics that underlies so much of this was at work when the Los Angeles NAACP recently rescinded their offer of Sterling's second Lifetime Achievement Award.  That's right - the word preceding Lifetime Achievement was SECOND.  Revealing that the Los Angeles NAACP has trouble understanding the concept of a lifetime as much as the concept of achievement.

The concept of tolerance is most often talked about in its elevated, abstract, groovy forms and once admirable but now corrupted organizations are too often our societal anointing agents.  But a grittier, real world form of tolerance is more crucial for societies and markets to work - tolerance for that which we find distasteful but does not actually harm us, particularly when the benefits outweigh the negatives.

The Clippers and the NBA exercised tolerance for Sterling's prejudice because it was largely inconsequential next to the larger merits of his franchise, just as Sterling "tolerated" paying black men to run his basketball empire because of their skills and genius.  A billionaire who may privately think poorly of the millionaires in his employ isn't necessarily harmful to them without consequential actions behind it.  If revealed, the harm is only perceptual.   But perception drives markets and undermines confidence.  We all see that now.  Sterling forgot it.

Every day we transact with people whose views - particularly if they were revealed to us through the prism of their calculating ex-mistress - would startle and offend us.  But we don't need to love, to like or approve of someone to find use in them when we enter into consensual agreements that benefit both parties.  We're also free to shun them. And sometimes should.  This is the real world of grown-ups - not the staged theater of outrage.

While tabloid recordings force us to shake our heads at an insecure dinosaur and we bate our breath for V Stiviano's sex tape reality show next career move, it seems for many in the media that their real discomfort is in moving beyond easy outrage and exploring a much more interesting world beyond.

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